VVIP Chopper scam: Mission to sabotage probe has begun

In India, there are many ways of sabotaging investigations into allegations of corruption in defence deals. The most secure way is to refer such cases to the CBI, which has over the past 30 years built up a pretty solid record of not cracking any of the cases involving corrupt defence deals that were referred to it.

So it isn't entirely surprising, as this report makes clear, that even a full week after the allegations of alleged kickbacks in the AgustaWestland copter deal came roaring back, the CBI has not yet registered a case in the matter.  Although the Defence Ministry lodged a primary complaint some days ago, the investigating agency evidently claims that in the absence of specific allegations or complaints against an Indian company or an Indian citizen, it is unable to proceed in the matter.

According to the report, the CBI claims that it "virtually drew a blank" from the Defence Ministry when it sought official inputs about allegations of kickbacks in the Rs 3,528 crore deal for the purchase of 12 VVIP helicopters from AgustaWestland. All it received were a letter asking the agency to conduct a probe, and some press clippings - from the Indian and Italian media. And these, in its estimation, could not form the basis for registering a case.

There are many ways of sabotaging the AgustaWestland  investigations, and the CBI is proceeding on course. Courtesy: AgustaWestland

There are many ways of sabotaging the AgustaWestland investigations, and the CBI is proceeding on course. Courtesy: AgustaWestland

The CBI cites more instances of a lack of urgency on the part of Indian officials in assisting the investigation. It had evidently sought the help of Indian diplomats in Rome to secure authenticated court documents, but has again not made any headway. And since no case has been registered by the agency, even Interpol, whose help the CBI had sought, had indicated that  it could not help.

On top of that, even the Italian courts have said that they will not be able to share details of the case at this stage of the trial, since the investigations are still proceeding, and must perforce be wrapped in secrecy if they are to make headway. They have, however, given room to believe that at a later stage of the trial, when the investigations have been more fully concluded, Indian investigators could gain access to the details.

Already, the stage has been set for the CBI to claim that it is running into brick walls in the investigation, since no international agency - or even the Defence Ministry - is willing to cooperate. The fact that it hasn't taken the first step towards advancing the investigation - by registering a case - appears to have escaped its attention.

In earlier instances of corruption into defence deals, too, the Indian establishment has been artful in sabotaging the investigations - even when they were proceeding in overseas jurisdictions, where typically they would not have been in a position to influence the course of the probe.

In the Bofors case, for instance, when the investigations in Switzerland were proceeding at an embarrassing pace for the Congress government, Madhavsinh Solanki, who served as Minister for External Affairs in the PV Narasimha Rao government, used the occasion of a visit to the World Economic Forum summit in Davos to intervene to sabotage the proceedings in the Bofors investigation. As court documents of that time make clear (details here), Solanki sought an appointment with Swiss Foreign Minister Rene Felber, and asked that there be no witnesses present at the meeting. At that meeting, Solanki handed over an envelope to Felber, which contained an unsigned, typed memoradum which claimed that since "new information" had emerged in the Bofors case, the Swiss government should take no action on the letters rogatory that had been issued by an Indian court seeking details of the court proceedings and cooperation in the investigation in Switzerland.

For that blatant effort to sabotage the investigation, Solanki paid with his job - although, of course, he would encash his IOU with the Congress years later.

Likewise, as KP Nayar reveals in The Telegraph (here), Indian diplomats in Dubai, evidently under instructions from the political establishment in Delhi, were playing a duplicitous double-game in the Bofors case. At the same time that Indian diplomats were delivering written requests for the extradition of arms agent Win Chadha in the Bofors case, they were also telling authorities in the emirate not to repatriate him. "Naturally, the Dubai government went by the oral advice of the diplomats in person and not the written requests," Nayar writes.

In the AgustaWestland case, however, the Indian government appears not to have any political goodwill to exert its influence over the Italian government or the due process of law largely because of the shadow of the case involving two Italian Marines who are being tried in India in connection with the shooting incident off the Kerala coast last year, points out the report.

Although the Indian External Affairs Ministry appeared keen to accommodate Italian requests for a joint investigation, the Central government was swayed by the popular outrage in Kerala over the incident, which the Congress government channelled to take a hard line against the Italian request. The Indian government, therefore, had to persuade the Italian government to back off, claiming that the independent judiciary in India was well placed to render justice in this case.

The Italian reluctance to accommodate Indian investigators' request for details is being seen as a way of paying back the Indian government in its own coin.

Which opens up the interesting possibility: will political pressure be brought to bear on the trial in the case of the Italian Marines - in order for the Indian government to gain some wiggle room with the Italian government in the AgustaWestland investigation? After all, any case is only as good as the prosecution, and as the recent sensational exposure of the "collusion" between the prosecutor in the 2G scam case and one of the accused showed, there are ways of sabotaging the case even when it has come to trial - and is being overseen by the Supreme Court.

Updated Date: Feb 18, 2013 09:20 AM

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